Volume 43, Number 5: September/October 2009

Israel’s critics will not be silenced!

First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” − Mahatma Gandhi

When public figures of the status of multiculturalism and immigration minister Jason Kenney and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff deem it prudent to attack Israeli Apartheid Week, a grassroots series of events organized every March on university campuses by a constellation of rag-tag student groups, we can say with fair certainty that the Palestine solidarity movement has arrived at the “fight” stage.

When the big guns are shooting at you, nervous airmen have observed, you’re probably flying right over the target. Consider the fact that top-level politicians are now taking time to remind us about things that used to be received as wisdom in these parts (Israel is good, Palestine activists are anti-Semitic kooks). Call me a nut, but our movement may be having an impact.

Let’s be more forthright: We are having an impact — principally, though not solely, owing to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The impact may even be larger than we can know. Writing in February in the Israeli publication, The Marker, economic correspondent Nehemia Strassler referred to a “concealed boycott,” wherein even companies not formally signed on to the BDS campaign might quietly drop their Israeli providers to steer clear of controversy. Typically, business people are more liable to avoid a stink than cause one, so the size of this “concealed boycott” could be significantly larger than the ledger of organizations actually signatory to BDS.

Economic-warfare-from-below may be non-violent, but it’s still warfare. “War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman observed. While violent warfare is the most hellish, non-violent warfare takes its own casualties. Today perhaps more than ever, as Palestine solidarity activists become more organized and successful, they are finding themselves targeted by Zionist individuals and organizations seeking to provide cover for Israeli aggression.

In March, for example, administrations at York University, Carleton University, and the University of Ottawa took public stands against IAW, banning posters and targeting activists. Despite such setbacks, IAW was a huge success, featuring well-attended lectures, packed film screenings, and respectful debates in thirteen cities across Canada.

Minister Kenney had better luck bullying the Canadian Arab Federation, announcing on March 14 that the organization would have to “adopt a more moderate stance or risk losing federal funding,” accusing it of promoting “hateful and extreme views” and apologizing for Hamas and Hezbollah. The media portrayed Kenney’s threats as a response to CAF president Khaled Mouammar’s description of the minister as a “professional whore who supports war.” While Mouammar’s comments were regrettable — if also, perhaps, not untrue — a more likely reason for Kenney’s threat is the CAF’s frequent criticism of Israeli apartheid and human-rights violations. On April 1, Honourable Justice Kelen of the Federal Court rejected the CAF’s request for an injunction, but also found that the minister probably “breached the duty of fairness” and that the CAF “may be entitled to commence an action for damages.” Go get ’em!

In 2007, media giant Canwest launched a lawsuit against activists Mordecai Briemberg, Gordon Murray and Carel Moiseiwitsch for publishing a parody of The Vancouver Sun intended to satirize Canwest’s pro-Israel bias. The Seriously Free Speech Committee was formed to defend the activists, and its campaign has received widespread support. Last year Canwest dropped its suit against Briemberg — who called it “a significant victory” — but the campaign is to continue until Canwest drops its suits against Murray and Moiseiwitsch, too.

Free Speech for Some, Hate Laws for Others Zionist organizations often employ the tactic of misapplying Canadian hate laws to criticism of Israel. This June, for example, the B’nai Brith took aim on a York University conference scheduled for late June, “Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace,” branding it a “virulent anti-Israel hate fest” and claiming that “several of the speakers are actively engaged in Holocaust denial, rationalize terrorism, and are infamous anti-Israel propagandists.” Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear took the B’nai Brith’s ball and ran with it, pressuring the conference’s main funder, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), to initiate a second peer-review process in hopes of slashing the conference budget. Thanks in part to a lively letter-writing campaign in support of free speech on campus, no second review took place, and the conference went forward without losing its support. Canadian Association of University Teachers executive Jim Turk has called for Minister Goodyear’s resignation, citing his “direct political interference in a funding decision made through an independent, peer reviewed process.”

Artists critical of Israel often become targets of Zionist free-speech opponents. Take Caryl Churchill’s play, Seven Jewish Children, billed as “a ten-minute history of Israel, ending with the bombing of Gaza.” Despite a storm of controversy ignited by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, representatives of London’s Royal Court Theatre resolutely defended the play, which debuted on February 10. Churchill allows anyone who wishes to perform the play to do so for free. You can watch the play on YouTube.

Being Jewish won’t protect you from the pro-Israel gang, as artist Reena Katz found out when Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts earlier this year announced it was “disassociating” itself from her work, each hand as they are called, part of a group show called Wrecking Ball. The show went forward — contracts had been signed — but the Koffler’s announcement was generally considered a blackballing. Some of the other artists in the show, including Ed Pien, Gwen McGregor, Sharon Switzer, and Yvonne Singer, boycotted the June 18 opening in solidarity with Katz. The Koffler’s decision also raised questions about what constitutes proper conduct for an institution that receives annual public funds of more than $100,000. “We’re taking it very seriously,” Claire Hopkinson, the Toronto Arts Council’s executive director, told the Toronto Star.

Another move often played by Zionist activists is the “liberal card.” This July, for example, B’nai Brith executive vice-president Frank Dimant applied pressure to Pride Toronto, seeking to get the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid banned from Pride events. In a media statement, Dimant contrasted gay rights in Israel with the lack of such rights in Arab countries. One might therefore assume that Dimant would approve of this year’s parade grand marshal being a progressive Muslim; but El-Farouk Khaki, a refugee lawyer, found himself in B’nai Brith’s line of fire, described in Dimant’s statement as “part and parcel of the anti-Israel machinery that continues to churn out hateful and divisive propaganda.” Happily, Dimant’s gambit was a failure, as more than 200 QuAIA members marched in the parade.

This list could go on much longer, space permitting. Let us therefore end with the case of Dimension’s own Lesley Hughes, whose Liberal Party candidacy in the last federal election was cancelled by then-leader Stéphane Dion after representatives of the B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Council persuaded him that Hughes was anti-Semitic and not fit for public office. But what goes around comes around: both organizations and four of their senior members — together with Tory MP Peter Kent, who said in a media release that Hughes held “extreme, anti-Israel 9/11 conspiracy theories” — have been named in a lawsuit filed by Hughes.

Indeed, today is a good day for hope. We have a long way to go before we reach Gandhi’s “Then you win” stage, but we’re winning as many as we’re losing, and that’s a substantial improvement on past conditions. Here’s the next fight for Canadian activists: A coalition of Canadian MPs, with representation from all major parties and led by Kenney and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, is pushing for legislation to criminalize criticism of Israel by equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. Israel’s recent massacres in Gaza precipitated worldwide condemnation and boycott of Israel as never before, and Zionists around the world will try to put that genie back in the bottle. It is up to us to stop them — not only for our own sakes as Palestine solidarity activists, and not only for Palestinians, but for Israelis, too, and for anyone in the world who loves justice and freedom.

Addendum

Since this article was published a few days ago, two prominent examples emerged that we believe continue this discussion.

Joining the BDS campaign, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, has voluntarily removed this film from the Toronto International Film Festival. You can see the rationale in his official statement located here (PDF).

Alternatively, his film can be streamed on Vimeo for the duration of the festival at this link.

The second example is York Professor David Noble and his upcoming public hearing on the reprisals he endured as a result of a successful campaign questioning the practice of canceling classes for all students during Jewish religious holidays.

His public statement can be read here.